"When somebody hurts someone else, we have to make it better."
Every now and then I have to review a movie where, rather than commenting upon the actual quality or worth of the movie, I feel like the best indication of how good or terrible it is should simply be a description of the movie’s plot. In a related matter, Colin Treverrow, the quintessential example of why taking someone from obscure indie fame to giant unprecedented blockbuster fame might not yield the best results, has a new movie out and it’s getting quite a bit of attention albeit not for the right reasons.
Single mother Susan Carpenter (Naomi Watts) works as a waitress while her son Henry (Jaeden Lieberher), a genius child prodigy, takes care of everyone and everything in his own way. Protective of his brother (Jacob Tremblay) and a tireless supporter of his often self-doubting mother, Henry blazes through the days like a comet. When Susan discovers that the family next door harbours a dark secret, she's surprised to learn that Henry has devised a plan to help the young daughter.
While some critics have unabashedly named ‘The Book of Henry’ to be the worst movie of 2017, I have to disagree. Not because I think the movie is good, it is in fact bafflingly terrible, but it’s also far too interesting and insane to warrant being written off immediately. Especially when so many bland and lazy movies have a claim to the title of worst movie of 2017 now that we are at the halfway mark. ‘The Book of Henry’ is also not as apocalyptically bad as some reviews have suggested. The mere fact that every conceivable creative decision doesn’t have the exact opposite effect of what its creator intended means that it is not worthy of being put alongside ‘The Room’. Also, even if it was that bad, Colin Treverrow is not nearly as interesting as Tommy Wiseau.
The think is, I can understand what Treverrow and writer Gregg Hurwitz were trying to achieve, I really do. I think ‘The Book of Henry’ was intended to be both a homage and a deconstruction of the family friendly movies of the 1980s in which all the adult problems of the world would be solved by some smart-ass kid. On paper the concept itself is a decent one, drawing an audience into an illusion before shattering it right in front of them in favour of showing them a harsher but more truthful reality. I get it, but the way the movie jumps from its homage segment to its deconstruction is so tonally jarring that ‘The Book of Henry’ comes off as pure insanity fuel that academics could go crazy over trying to decipher and piece together.
I pity the poor people who went into ‘The Book of Henry’ expecting some fun children’s romp with a dark edge because the movie spirals out of control faster than a genetically engineered dinosaur at a futuristic theme park. We go from child friendly antics and one scene to real world issues like death, illness and abuse. It’s like welding the first half of a Chris Columbus movie onto the second half of an Ingmar Bergman movie. If I can draw anything from this movie it is that it’s given me much more respect for directors like Wes Anderson whose movies frequently begin as quirky comedies and turn into studies of grief and loss. Maybe ‘The Book of Henry’ could work in the hands of a more skilled director, but as Treverrow suggested with ‘Jurassic World’, subtlety is far from his strongpoint and any nuances that might have eased the movie through this tonal shift are lost in favour of clichéd melodrama and plot points so ridiculous that they will evoke laughter rather than…..whatever they were supposed to evoke, I really don’t know.
Another helpful addition in terms of letting your audience know what they are in for is some subtle foreshadowing. You can shift the entire tone of your movie so long as you lay the groundwork for it and clue your audience into a change in style. But none of that appears, in fact the amount of times I wrongly guessed which direction the movie would be going next rose to double digits before the movie’s runtime had even reached double digits. None of the subsequent turns the movie takes are in any way implied or suggested, with each irreverent turn having no bearing on where the movie might go next. Furthermore they’re not explored or established in any great detail either, with half of them being rushed through. The best example is probably (I’d say spoiler but really, who cares?) is that a character goes from being completely healthy and functioning to developing a brain tumour and dying in the space of about ten minutes of screen time. That doesn’t just apply to the narrative either, as character motivations (speaking of which, one of the characters are remotely sympathetic or understandable in any way, shape or form), established rules of this world and the law enforcement system itself change seemingly on a whim.
Jarring and disorienting in every conceivable way, ‘The Book of Henry’ is bafflingly terrible if not highly interesting.